U.S. Soccer, the governing body for the sport in America, pays the members of the men’s and women’s national team who represent the United States in international competitions. The men’s team has historically been mediocre. The women’s team has been a quadrennial phenomenon, winning world and Olympic championships and bringing much of the country to a standstill in the process.
Citing this disparity, as well as rising revenue numbers, five players on the women’s team filed a federal complaint Wednesday, accusing U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination because, they said, they earned as little as 40 percent of what players on the United States men’s national team earned even as they marched to the team’s third world championship last year. The five players, some of the most prominent women’s athletes in sports, said they were shortchanged on everything from bonuses to appearance fees to per diems.
The case, submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, is the latest front in the spreading debate over equal treatment of female athletes. A tennis tournament director was forced to resign recently after saying that female players “ride on the coattails of the men,” and the N.C.A.A. has drawn scrutiny for the financial disparities between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” said goalkeeper Hope Solo, one of the players to sign the complaint. “We are the best in the world, have three World Cup championships, four Olympic championships.” Solo said the men’s players “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”
Solo was joined in the complaint by the co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, forward Alex Morgan and midfielder Megan Rapinoe.
U.S. Soccer officials pushed back forcefully on the players’ claims in a conference call Thursday night, citing figures that the federation said showed the men’s national team produced revenue and attendance about double that of the women’s team, and television ratings that were “a multiple” of what the women attract, according to Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer president. A federation spokesman, Neil Buethe, called some of the revenue figures in the players’ complaint “inaccurate, misleading or both.”
In a statement released earlier Thursday, U.S. Soccer recounted the role the federation has played in the growth of women’s soccer, including its introduction to the Olympic Games and in providing full-time salaries for top players. It said it was willing to discuss compensation as part of continuing talks over a new collective bargaining agreement.
But in linking their compensation to the men’s pay, the women’s players put U.S. Soccer in a difficult position. The federation has collective bargaining agreements with both teams, but the financial terms differ widely.
A men’s player, for example, receives $5,000 for a loss in a friendly match but as much as $17,625 for a win against a top opponent. A women’s player receives $1,350 for a similar match, but only if the United States wins; women’s players receive no bonuses for losses or ties.
Opportunities for women to participate in sports have increased greatly in the more than 40 years since the passage of the gender-equity legislation known as Title IX. But sports officials continue to struggle with matters of compensation.
It has been argued that men’s sports, and their players, deserve a financial edge because they draw bigger crowds and generate far more money in ticket sales and corporate sponsorships. That is the case for U.S. Soccer’s national teams, the federation said Thursday. But that is not true for every sport. Women’s figure skating, for instance, has often drawn higher TV ratings and bigger crowds than men’s figure skating.
In their complaint, the five players cited recent U.S. Soccer financial reports as proof that they have become the federation’s main economic engine even as, they said, they often earned only half as much — or less — than their male counterparts.
At the same time, the players said, they exceeded revenue projections by as much as $16 million in 2015, when their World Cup triumph set television viewership records and a nine-game victory tour in packed stadiums produced record gate receipts and attendance figures.
U.S. Soccer officials disputed those figures, arguing that the women and their lawyer, Jeffrey Kessler, cherry-picked an extraordinarily successful year to draw broad conclusions.
Michael LeRoy, who teaches collective bargaining and sports at the University of Illinois, said that market conditions between the men’s and women’s sports are vastly different. LeRoy pointed to a high-profile case brought by Marianne Stanley, the women’s basketball coach at the University of Southern California in the early 1990s, who argued she should be paid at a level equal to the men’s coach. Her legal effort was unsuccessful.
“They have to prove equality of work and market conditions, and it’s such a rigid legal requirement,” LeRoy said of the women’s soccer players.
While women have often been dismissed in international soccer — the men’s World Cup began in 1930 and the women’s not until 1991 — they have become the sport’s standard-bearers in the United States. The women’s team has provided the type of repeated success that has remained elusive for the American men. Not so long ago, a woman, Mia Hamm, may have been the best-known soccer player in the country.
When Hamm and her teammates won the 1999 World Cup in the United States, they also set records for attendance and television viewing. Last summer, when the United States defeated Japan to win another Women’s World Cup, the final was seen by 25.4 million viewers on Fox — a record for a men’s or women’s soccer game on English-language television in this country.
“We have been quite patient over the years with the belief that the federation would do the right thing and compensate us fairly,” said Lloyd, the most valuable player of the Women’s World Cup.
Although only five players signed the complaint, they said they were acting on behalf of the entire women’s team, saying they are all employees of U.S. Soccer through their national team contracts. That is significant, according to Peter Romer-Friedman, the deputy director of litigation for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
“By speaking up publicly, the players are saying, ‘It’s important for the public to know that we’ve filed this suit,’ ” Romer-Friedman said. “Frankly, as a civil rights lawyer, it is important for them to speak out because it has an educational effect.”
The filing of the complaint was the latest move in an increasingly contentious legal fight between U.S. Soccer and the women’s national team, which is favored to repeat as Olympic champion at the Rio Games in August but has long grumbled about its pay, working conditions and travel and hotel arrangements.
The long-simmering feud boiled over after last summer’s Women’s World Cup triumph. A match in Hawaii that was part of the team’s victory tour was canceled when the players refused to play on an artificial-turf field they deemed unsafe. Gulati later apologized for the situation.
Two months later, the disagreement veered into federal court when U.S. Soccer took the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against the national team’s players’ union as part of a dispute about the validity of the players’ collective bargaining agreement. The federation contends the agreement, which expired in 2012, lives on in a memorandum of understanding the sides signed in early 2013. The union contends it does not.
In response to the complaint filed Wednesday, U.S. Soccer argued that not only was the players’ pay collectively bargained, but that the players had insisted more than once on a salary-based system as a means of economic security over the bonus-centric plan the men work under. Russell Sauer, the outside counsel for the federation during labor talks, also said the women’s labor contract included provisions — severance and injury pay, health benefits and maternity leave, for example — not available to the men’s team.
“The truth is,” Sauer said, “the players are claiming discrimination based on a more conservative structure, based on guaranteed compensation rather than pay to play, which they themselves requested, negotiated and approved of not once, but twice.”
Furthermore, U.S. Soccer noted, a major source of revenue and contention — World Cup prize money — is determined by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, not the federation. But the women’s complaint seems to take aim at a bigger share of domestic revenue, like sponsorships and television contracts, and U.S. Soccer financial reports hint at a richer future involving the team: The federation’s budget projections for 2016 include $2.3 million for a 10-game victory tour after this summer’s Olympics.
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